Promoting Culture: Senator Jeff Sessions and the National Endowment for the Humanities

CatCultureHappens

What role should the humanities play in American civil society? What role should the government play in supporting the humanities as a field of inquiry?

These are the questions Alabama Senator and chair of the Senate Budget Committee Jeff Sessions has brought to light in a recent letter to the National Humanities Endowment. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Sessions sent a letter to the acting chair of the NEH asking her to provide details about the NEH’s funding and peer-review practices.

Mr. Sessions asked for a detailed explanation of the process behind the NEH’s Muslim Journeys grants. “One would think that the NEH takes a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” the senator wrote. He asked for “an itemized list,” covering the last five years, “of all spending related to Christianity (e.g., Protestantism—Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal—or Catholicism) or Judaism where books or forums promoting one point of view were provided to libraries, etc.”

Mr. Sessions also asked Ms. Watson “to explain the peer-review process” and provide lists of peer reviewers for all education-program grants disbursed after April 30, 2013. “In the current fiscal environment, I question the appropriateness of such grants, and believe the public would benefit from a fulsome explanation of the entire review process,” he wrote.

The letter names several specific education-program grants (about $25,000 each) and the general topics they support—for instance, “What is belief?” and “What is a monster?” It does not mention that the grants go to scholars to develop and teach undergraduate courses centered on those topics. According to the NEH’s Web site, the Enduring Questions program supports “question-driven” courses that encourage students and professors “to grapple with a fundamental concern of human life addressed by the humanities, and to join together in a deep and sustained program of reading in order to encounter influential thinkers over the centuries and into the present day.”

You can read the full letter here.

Mr. Sessions argument that the NEH must take “a fair and balanced approach to promoting culture,” struck me as rather odd. Mr. Sessions seems to be working from misunderstanding about culture. One does not promote culture. Culture is. It is not promoted or demoted. “Promoting culture” makes as much sense as “promoting gravity.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Culture is a tricky term. A term that very smart people like Raymond Williams have spent a lot of time and energy thinking through. In one such piece of thinking Williams outlined three different general categories for definitions of culture. The first he called “ideal” where culture “is a state or process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values.” Here culture is that which is greatest, wisest, most beautiful–in short, Truth. Second, culture can be “documentary.” In these definitions culture is a body of intellectual and imaginary work. In this view, art, music, and literature are culture. The newspaper would not be culture. Lastly, a third set of definitions are “social.” In these, culture is a particular way of life and a particular set of meanings and values associated with that way of life. Here the meanings and values are not confined to art and learning but extend out to institutions and ordinary behavior.

Returning to Senator Sessions, it seems his definition of culture aligns most with the notion of culture as “ideal.” Culture is a stand in for Truth. Indeed, it is also a stand in for “religion,” as his only examples of culture are various religious traditions. But his definition has a twist. It’s culture as ideal/Truth/religion in a plural society. For Mr. Sessions, culture is not simply the ideal toward which all humans, or even all Americans, are striving. No, it seems that what is greatest, wises, or most beautiful is up for grabs. Truth is up for grabs. There is a competition. It’s a cultural free market. So, the NEH must be sure it does not pick winners and losers. When he writes that the NEH should be balanced in “promoting culture” he means it should be balanced in promoting various claims to Truth.

But if we look at the purpose of the NEH and examine its founding document, the “National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act of 1965,” we find a different definition of culture.

(6) The arts and the humanities reflect the high place accorded
by the American people to the nation’s rich cultural
heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse
beliefs and values of all persons and groups.

(9) Americans should receive in school, background and
preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize
and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the
diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage,
and artistic and scholarly expression.

(10) It is vital to a democracy to honor and preserve its
multicultural artistic heritage as well as support new ideas,
and therefore it is essential to provide financial assistance to
its artists and the organizations that support their work.

These sections of the law outline an understanding of culture that most closely resembles the “social” or “way of life” definition. Interestingly, like Mr. Sessions, this 1965 legislation also sees culture as plural, as “multicultural.” But here there is no competing claims to Truth. Rather there are diverse ways of being in the world, ways of life, ways of making meaning. There are diverse beliefs and values to be appreciated, not various claims to ultimate Truth to be adjudicated. In this definition culture cannot be promoted. It can only be “appreciated” to a greater or lesser extent. The NEH was meant to help us appreciate culture as a nation.

Since 1965 the meaning of culture has continued to shift. We have pop culture, subcultures, drug culture, campus culture, the culture of a workplace. Similarly, the definition of culture is fraught among those of us who claim to study it for a living. Yet, culture is still with us. This is why, to me, the “promotion of culture” makes as much sense as the “promotion of gravity.” At the end of the day there is something that tells us who we are, who others are, what we should do, what we shouldn’t do. There is something that has trained me to respond “Roll Tide!” when necessary. There is something that makes the words on your screen meaningful. There is something that makes cat memes funny. What is that? Culture is a pretty good name for it, I guess. And so, again, promoting culture is like promoting gravity. It doesn’t need promoting, it just happens.

Figuring out how it happens and what it does takes money, time, and expertise. That’s why we have the NEH. For now.

Yoga and the Protestant Public Sphere; Or, Taking Back Yoga Where?

Thanks to NPR, the debate about white people doing yoga is back in the news:

About 20 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, from the formal Iyengar and Ashtanga schools to the more irreverent “Yoga Butt.”

But some Hindus say yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques. They want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy — one, in their view, with Hindu roots.

Many forms of yoga go back centuries. Even in the U.S., the transcendentalists were doing yoga in the 1800s.

William Broad, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Science of Yoga, has been practicing since 1970. He says people pursue yoga for all kinds of reasons, from achieving health and fitness to seeking spirituality, energy and creativity.

Yoga, Broad says, is an antidote for a chaotic world.

The story goes on to quote Sheetal Shah of the American Hindu Foundation, the force behind the “Taking Back Yoga” campaign, who argues that yoga has its roots in the Vedas and therefore in Hinduism and so it is a problem to divorce the practice from the “lifestyle” and “philosophy” of nonviolence, truthfulness, and purity–all admirable qualities.

The NPR piece prompted my colleague at Emory, Deeksha Sivakumar, to ask over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion  “do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders?” I think Deeksha is on the right track, and her post over at the Bulletin makes some important points, but we need to ask another question first. Is modern transnational yoga religious? How and why? Or to put it another way, where do we need to take yoga back to?

Missing from all of the debates about yoga in the past year and half or so (see here and here) is a thoughtful look at the history of yoga in India and in the West.  Last January, Roman Palitsky, writing at Religion Dispatches, wrote the only essay I’ve seen taking a historical approach to modern yoga. In his piece he referenced a group of books that had recently been published and how they challenged the HAF and the “yoga is essentially Hindu” argument:

A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.

These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.

Of the books Palitsky names, Mark Singleton’s stands out as wonderful history of transnational yoga that traces the connection between Hindu thought and practice, European physical culture, and Indian nationalism. Singleton writes in his final chapter:

This chapter and those which precede it have outlined some of the ways in which the early modern practice of asana was influenced by various expression of physical culture. This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few). In turn, each of these histories is intimately linked to the development of modern transnational, anglophone yoga. Historically speaking, then, physical culture encompasses a far broader range of concerns and influences than “mere gymnastics,” and in many instances the modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations of its practitioners are coterminous with those of modern, posture-based yoga. They may indeed by at variance with “Classical Yoga,” but it does not follow from this that these practices, beliefs, and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or no) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.

That’s a tangled web of influence for what we call “yoga” today and it is not a simple story of Vedic texts through Patanjali to Vivekananda and the West. Following Singleton’s analysis, the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is yet another chapter in the unfolding of transnational yoga. The HAF’s reimagining of yoga as an essentially Vedic and essentially Hindu practice and their entire campaign to proclaim this to America is part of their program for political self-representation and power. It is necessitated by the demands of American diversity and by the resurgence of a public conservative Protestant establishment. As religion has taken a greater role in the public sphere post-1965 (and here I’m thinking of the conclusion of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America) the need for minority communities to make public claims to religious relevance and authenticity has increased. “Take Back Yoga” is more than a claim for a religious practice, it is the claim for power within the de-secularizing public sphere and an increasingly empowered Protestant establishment.

So, there is no where to take yoga back. There is only a pressing forward as Hindus and other minority religious communities assert themselves in the public sphere in the face of an encroaching Protestant establishment.

Things that are still true about American Christianity…

Jerry Falwell going down a waterslide in a black suite

“The new formation [born-again Christianity] was part fundamentalist, part pentecostal, part charismatic, part evangelical, and then something else in a way that none of its parts had been: morally outraged, socially engaged, and routinely politically active.”

– Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell (2000)

I was preparing my lesson for Monday’s class about the Scopes trial and Christian fundamentalism when I came across this quote from Harding. I assigned her chapter on Scopes to students in my (team taught) History of Religions in America course because it does a good job of situating the trial in the larger 20th century history of American Christianity and also emphasizes the fragmented nature of conservative Protestantism. This quote comes from the end of the chapter as she moves from the exile of the fundamentalists to the resurgence of born-agains in the 80s. What struck me, now a decade removed from Harding’s publication, is just how right she was. Since her book, we’ve heard the “end of the religious right” narrative trotted out again and again, but here we sit on the other side of Harding’s text, 9/11, two wars, and the Tea Party and it seems that  moral outrage, social engagement, and political activism still define the Christian right. This three part recipe has roots in the evangelical reform movements of the nineteenth century and the revivalism of the early republic, but in the past thirty years it has mingled with late-modern capitalism, imperialism, free-marketism, and militarism. This Voltron of religious conservatism, call it Pentevangelamentalism (or born again Christianity, as Harding does), will always look like it’s about to fall apart at any moment. It is criss-cross with internal ruptures and lines of fissure. However, the shared outrage practiced in the social and political spheres will always hold it together in the end.

Justice, Bin Laden, and American Civil Religion

As I sat on my couch scanning Twitter and listening to the President describe the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I realized that this was a high moment in American civil religion. Thanks to a couple colleagues here at Emory and our writing group, I’ve had civil religion on the brain lately. As the president repeated “justice…justice…justice,” I began to wonder what Robert Bellah would say.

In 1967 Robert Bellah published his famous article “Civil Religion in America.” Bellah argued that there was an American civil religion that stretched from the founding of the nation up to his day and time. It was a religion born in the Revolution, matured through the Civl War, and at work in the midst of Vietnam. It was a transcendent understanding of the American experience that borrowed from biblical sources but existed alongside traditional religious commitments. It was enshrined in national rituals, inauguration speeches, and historic documents. It included the God in whom we trust, the God who blesses America, and the Creator who endowed us with inalienable rights. Its saints are Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy. It’s shrines are Gettysburg and Ground Zero.

Bellah identified three trials in American history that produced our civil religion. The Revolution brought us questions of independence and the rights granted by God. Then the Civil War challenged us to think about sacrifice–most notably the sacrificial death of President Lincoln–in the face of a moral evil like slavery. In 1967, Bellah saw the third crisis as the contemporary problem of “responsible action in a revolutionary war.”

We still live in the third crisis. The Revolution birthed a civil religion of rights and a God who grants them. The Civil War added a God who demands sacrifice for our national sins. Last night added a God of justice to our civil religion. George W. Bush said that America would bring those responsible for 9/11 to justice or bring justice to them. President Obama declared last night that “Justice had been done.” But what kind of justice?

The Creator in the Declaration of Independence is egalitarian and humanistic. The death of Lincoln is sacrificial. But the justice of American civil religion is retributional. Death requires death. Destruction requires destruction. We see it in our country’s domestic drug policy that locks away young minority offenders and sucks them into a prison industrial complex. We see it in a litigious society that demands all harm be ameliorated with a check. We see it on the streets outside the White House where people celebrate the death of a mass murderer like it was a Super Bowl win. An eye for an eye until we’re all blind.

Osama Bin Laden committed immeasurable evil. In the face of such evil, justice becomes confusing. Justice is easy if someone steals your bike or smashes your car. Justice is harder when someone is killed. Justice seems almost impossible when someone’s evil destroys thousands of people and their families. On a day like today, it feels like justice and evil are incommensurable.

But perhaps the civil religion of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy can produce a justice that isn’t based in retribution.

Bellah concludes:

“[American civil religion] does not make any decision for us. It does not remove us from moral ambiguity, from being in Lincoln’s fine phrase, an ‘almost chosen people.’ But it is a heritage of moral and religious experience from which we still have much to learn as we formulate the decisions that lie ahead.”

What you think you know about church and state in America and why it’s wrong

David Sehat gives us five myths about church and state in America:

1. The Constitution has always protected religious freedom.

2. The founders’ faith matters.

3. Christian conservatives have only recently taken over politics.

4. America is more secular than it used to be.

5. Liberals are anti-religious.

Read the whole piece to see how he defends these.

I appreciate David’s work because he does such a good job of outlining Protestant cultural power during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My current research focuses on the boundaries of the Protestant establishment that David has outlined in his Myth of American Religious Freedom. I’m digging into Hindus as a representation of the outside of America–the dark, heathen, other–and David has done a great job investigating the inside of American culture and the ways Protestant moralists managed that inside. I also appreciate his provocative flair.

Buy his book.

Sharia Myths

Adam Serwer summarizes a new report that debunks the myths underlying conservative panics over sharia. In short, sharia is not like Biblical law or the Ten Commandments and it is not a threat to the United States.

But the sharia panic that is driving state legislatures to try and criminalize Islam, and making GOP presidential candidates fearful of even looking tolerant of Muslims, is based on an understanding of the religion that would be analogous to treating the bombing of an abortion clinic as the only true possible interpretation of Christianity.

Not Theology, but Authority: Rob Bell and the Evangelical Institutional Establishment

Note: Originally posted at State of Formation

The criticism of Rob Bell’s Love Wins is not about theology. It is all about authority.

In case you missed the hubbub surrounding Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, I point you to Sara Staely’s post where she outlines John Piper and the neo-Calvinist establishment’s response to the book. She sums up the conflict nicely:

Over the past few days, one three-word tweet has put the evangelical world into a tizzy:Farewell Rob Bell.  The tweet came from John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN and the veritable Godfather of the neo-reformed evangelical establishment (for more on Piper’s influence, see my previous post on evangelicals and inter-religious dialogue).  Piper was referencing Pastor Rob Bell of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, MI, a celebrated speaker and author among a younger, more progressive evangelical crowd.

Largely based on this two-and-a-half minute promotional video for Bell’s forthcoming book,Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, Piper has determined that the book will come a bit too close to universalism for his sensibilities.  And so, with a few clicks of the keyboard, a tap of the mouse and one trite tweet, it seems Bell has been expelled from what Piper deems to be the One True Church.

Sara goes on to discuss her own response to Piper et al.’s theological self-congratulations for securing orthodox evangelicalism, but I want to take things in a different direction. Sara is quite right to dwell on the theological implications of the “Bell’s Hell” controversy, however, I think at bottom the dispute is not about heaven and hell or heresy and orthodoxy. It is about authority.

Rob Bell challenges the authority of the (Calvinist) evangelical establishment and they don’t like it. For example, Bill Walker has compared Bell’s ideas in Love Wins with conservative evangelical darling and Presbyterian Church in America pastor Tim Keller’s ideas in The Reason for God. As Walker lays it out, the two share a lot in common. They both lean heavily on C.S. Lewis for their ideas and Bell even cites Keller’s other book Prodigal God in his “further reading” section of Love Wins. Yet, Keller is beloved by those in the pews and quoted by those in the pulpits while Bell is dangerous. As Walker puts it:

So here’s my second question.  Why is the evangelical right threatened by Bell if his theology is the same as one of their own (Keller)?  Is it because Keller’s allegiances prevent him from being scrutinized?  Or, is this not even really about theology?  Might there a deeper political element of power underlying the supposedly righteous rhetoric?

The short answer to Walker’s questions: Yes.

The controversy is not about the book or its theology. Look at this list of responses to the book from Southern Baptist leaders, put together by the Baptist Press. It seems like half of the respondents have not even read the book. They just know it was written by Rob Bell and so it must be opposed. The ones that do try to engage Bell’s writing either misread it or pan it as erroneous without giving good reasons why.

So, if it is not about theology, then what is is about? Why is Keller in but Rob Bell out? Why are old man Piper and the good fellas at the SBC hassling pastor Bell? Piper, the SBC, and other “orthodox” evangelical critics of the book are defending their own privileged place in American evangelicalism. Tim Keller is okay because he is a PCA pastor. He is inside the establishment. He is safe. Rob Bell is not.  Bell is not part of any major denomination and so, to Piper et al., he answers to no one. He is a rogue pastor with a HarperCollins book deal.

The response to Bell reminds me of the disputes between the Old Lights and New Lights in colonial America. During what some historians call the Great Awakening, pastors like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached an evangelicalism that emphasized God’s grace and personal experiences of salvation. Revivals broke out up and down the East coast as Whitfield preached to crowds. Along with this exuberant evangelical “experimental religion” came challenges to the old guard of church leadership. The revival came because of a new kind of ministry the mended the failures of the old lights.

While Bell is  not giving sermons on “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” like Gilbert Tennent, nonetheless, his book and his overall project challenges the power of the existing denominational establishment in America. The Baptists, the PCA, and the various Wesleyan and Pentecostal denominations have provided the institutional structures and the doctrinal orthodoxy for their particular corners of the evangelical community. But Bell and others like him come from outside of these structures, challenging their theology but, more importantly, challenging their authority. There is no assembly, council, bishop or court to drag Bell into and strip him of his post. This lack of control scares evangelical elites like John Piper.

In the pursuit for control over what counts as “evangelicalism” in America, it remains to be seen if love wins or not.